Review of books on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War

By Jim Monaghan, A Dublin socialist, January 1998.

The Irish contribution to the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War is an honourable one. I will try to put into the context of Irish society at the time. I cannot but recall the Joan Baez song about another civil war and the lines, "They should never have take the best."

Mid thirties Ireland was suffering from the world recession, aggravated by an "Economic War" being fought with Britain in which Britain imposed sanctions on Irish imports because of the Irish government refusal to continue paying annuities arising out of Britain compensation of the landlords for land reform in the last century. The current blockade of Cuba has a precedent here. The mildly radical De Valera government had become more and more conservative, especially on social issues, a process which culminated in the adoption of a new Constitution in 1937 which was strongly informed by Catholic Church ideology. The North was ruled as a Protestant state for a Protestant people. On the left there was an ineffectual Labour party, whose leadership spent more time trying to persuade the Catholic Bishops of their orthodoxy than they did persuading voters of their serious political purpose.

The only radical political grouping was the Republican movement, and here a lack of politics had been turned into a virtue. The major attempt to combine Republicanism with social issues (called The Republican Congress), founded by expelled elements of the Republican Movement, had divided in 1934 over whether to be a revolutionary party or a popular front. Neither element of the split ever really prospered, one wing joined the Labour Party the other formed an alliance with the small Communist Party. Throughout this period unemployment aggravated by blacklisting, led to emigration of militants. Trade Union militancy from Britain to New York often took on an Irish hue. For an example of this see Mike Quill's Transport Workers Union in New York.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War affected both extremes in Irish Politics, on the right the conservative victors of Ireland's civil war, recently edged out of' power by the moderate republicans of Fianna Fail, saw it as an opportunity to prove their Catholic and corporatist credentials. Under the leadership of former police chief Eoghan O'Duffy a brigade was organised to assist the Franco forces. This was blessed by the Catholic bishops. Recruitment was from the rightwing Blueshirts (similar to the Mussolini Blackshirts). The Blueshirt attempt to emulate Mussolini with a march on Dublin had been seen off by a combination of Government pressure and leftwing/republican action on the streets.

To the Irish radical left, communist and republican, this was a challenge. Under Frank Ryan, a charismatic leader with military experience from the war of Independence, a large number volunteered for the International Brigades. The core of this group comprised veterans of the Republican movement, used to being organised on a military basis. These came not only from Ireland but also from the Irish Left and Republican Diaspora in Britain and America. The small Irish Communist Party with the assistance CPGB organised their departure for Spain. Though attached to the British battalion they were known as the Connolly Column. Their exploits, though denigrated at the time, have assumed the stuff of legend.

The main book written on the Irish volunteers in Spain is Connolly Column by veteran Michael O'Riordan, also a long-time leader of Ireland's small Communist Party. This is a partisan eulogy which admits of no mistakes. It has a vivid feel as it reflects O'Riordan's personal courage, displayed both in Spain and Ireland. The fighting scenes make good reading. Being a Communist in Ireland from the 1930's on demanded a certain resolve. The book is good on the personal attributes of volunteers known to the author, its anecdotal detail gives a good flavour of the people and the time. I particularly like O'Riordan's story of his father who, while disagreeing with his son's politics, berated him for leaving Spain while his commanding officer remained captive.

Frank Ryan by Sean Cronin could easily be subtitled The lost leader. Ryan was a left republican leader, a charismatic man with military credentials from the war of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Many who went to Spain did so because of him. He combined militant Irish Republicanism with a socialist vision on class issues and internationalism. This enabled him to work with the leaders of the British battalion without friction. A strong-willed person, he stood up to Marty where others did not. Captured towards the end of the war, he languished in a Franco gaol awaiting execution. An imprisoned comrade (Fabricano Rojel) testified to his integrity. He said of Ryan that among the prisoners:

"he played a great part in creating discipline and restoring morale. He was no sectarian. He was in contact with prisoners who were communists, socialists, anarchists, and with the Basques, who were Catholic" (Connolly Column. p 148)

In Ireland a major campaign for his release united all except the conservative right. Even the fervently Catholic De Valera petitioned Franco for his release and instructed the diplomatic service to lobby to this end. Gerald O'Reilly of New York's Transport Workers Union, an old Republican Congress friend of Ryan, and Ryan's old friends from the republican movement, past and present, did what they could to influence the De Valera government on Ryan's behalf. Eventually he was reprieved. There was no execution, but he remained a prisoner.

In 1940 the Abwehr, Germany's secret service, arranged with Franco's government that Frank Ryan should be handed over to them. Ryan, of course had no control over his fate. Germany was hoping to use the unresolved Irish national struggle for it's own ends. The IRA chief of staff Sean Russell was negotiating with Germany for military aid on the old Fenian principal "Britain's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity". In the 1920s he had gone to Soviet Russia on a similar mission. The Germans decided they would smuggle Russell back to Ireland by submarine, and Ryan accepted the ride home. Ryan and Russell had been old comrades. Russell died of a perforated ulcer in Ryan's arms on the journey home and the mission was aborted. Ryan, by now in bad health and nearly deaf. was trapped in wartime Germany with few friends other than the writer Francis Stuart, Stuart unlike Ryan had illusions in Nazi Germany and made broadcasts to Ireland. It appears that Ryan's last political thoughts were of defending De Valera's policy of neutrality in the war.

Some pro-British elements have tried to make something out of this period in Ryan's life to his discredit, but none of the veterans who fought alongside him give any credence to such slurs. Ryan died in wartime Germany and was buried in Dresden. Many years later his body was returned to Ireland where he was honoured by the survivors of the Connolly column. It is felt by many that Ryan, had he lived, would have played a role in the new semi-radical semi-republican Clann na Poblachta party led by his old comrade Sean McBride in the years immediately after the war.

Strong Words Brave Deeds the poetry, life and times of Thomas O'Brien, is a collection of the works of another veteran. O'Brien was radicalised by Dublin poverty in the 1930s and retained his leftwing convictions all his life. He was a man of much ability, a poet, writer, actor, and playwright of some note. He too went to Spain. He had a modest reticence about his wartime experience and it is mainly through his poetry and plays that we glimpse his Spain. He founded the O'Brien Press, a beacon of publishing in Ireland.

There are two biographies of the poet and left-winger Charlie Donnelly. One is by his brother Joe and the other by the writer Joseph O'Connor Donnelly was from Tyrone in the British ruled six countries. He was radicalised as a student in Republican circles and joined the Republican Congress. Active in strike support and campaigns against slum landlords- he was eventually forced to emigrate to London. He remained in the Republican Congress and was also active in left circles- Even within left wing circles he retained an independence of' thought. His brother remembers him praising Trotsky in the mid-1930s. An attractive personality, I recall veteran Republicans talking of him with affection in the 1970s, fifty years after his death in action in Spain.

Peter O'Connor of Waterford is another veteran who has written a personal account or his Spanish experience. It is a warm account, written with modesty about his experiences. This memoir was published by his local Trades Council, a far cry from the days when he and his comrades were witch-hunted in the same city.

Another book on the Republican movement from the twenties to the forties deals in passing with the Spanish veterans many of whom were interned during the war by the De Valera. Here they found themselves with their mainstream Republican comrades. The only apparent problem was when some more conservative Republicans petitioned for the removal of the somewhat eccentric Communist Neil Vershovle-Gould from their ranks presumably because of the ideological threat, Gould's brother had gone to Spain to assist the war effort, was kidnapped to USSR during the Barcelona events and died in the Gulag.(Twilight of the IRA by Uinseann McEoin )

There are a few questions still to be explored on the Irish involvement in Spain. First the decision of the majority of the Irish to transfer to the Lincoln's. [The US Abraham Lincoln Battalion.] This was triggered by allegations that Nathan, a British officer, had served with the notorious Black and Tans during the [Irish] War of Independence. Those who chose to stay with the British Battalion portray their stance as a struggle for Internationalism.

Another question arises over the row between Frank Ryan and Andre Marty, (unmentioned in O'Riordan's book). Ryan was threatened with arrest. Given Marty's reputation for harsh dealing with perceived dissidents, this was a serious matter. It would be useful to know more of this incident, which also involved another Irish volunteer, Kit Conway.

The volunteers returned to a sparse welcome, extended mainly by the scattered remnants of the radical Republican left. Many did not return. According to O'Riordan 53 died on the battlefield out of a total of 140. This probably underestimates the Irish involvement as exiles sometimes joined the units of their host countries. Of those who did return to Ireland, many later emigrated, some fighting Hitler in the Second World War in the armies of Britain and America. Those who remained played roles in the trade union movement and in far left politics, but largely remained unheard prophets in their own land.

In the Moscow archives Dr Emmet O' Connor (son of Peter) and Dr Barry McLoughlin have seen the files on Irish volunteers, These are quite extensive and should give much information on the people and their motivations.

The Connollv Column was really a generic description of the Irish in Spain and was probably not a distinct military formation. It involved many Irish who lived outside Ireland who joined up for motivations which were diverse. It's ancestry includes the San Patricios who deserted the American army to fight for downtrodden Mexico. It's descendants include those who went to assist the Nicaraguans in the recent past. The Republican tradition in Ireland (as distinct from the Nationalist) has always been Internationalist seeing all people's freedom as the guarantee of it's own.

Connolly Column, Michael O'Riordan published New Books, Dublin Ireland, 1979
Frank Ryan, Sean Cronin, published Repsol, Dublin Ireland 1980
The Gun in Irish Politics, J. Bowyer Bell, published Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick New Jersey, 1991
Strong Words Brave Deeds, Thomas O'Brien, published The O'Brien Press, Dublin, 1994
Even the Olives are Bleeding: the Life and Times of Charlie Donnelly, by Joseph O'Connor. Dublin, 1992
Charlie Donnelly: life and works, Joseph Donnelly, Dublin 1987
Twilight of the IRA, Uinseann McEoin, published Argenta, Dublin, 1997.

Several documents with reviews of books on Ireland and the SCW